Thursday, February 11, 2016

Landis set to run Hilton Head Island Marathon for dystonia research

Tim Landis will run in the Hilton Head Island Marathon on Saturday to raise funds for the Dystonia Medical Research Foundation. (Photo courtesy of Lycoming College Athletics)
WILLIAMSPORT, Pa. – When Lycoming College assistant football coach Tim Landis steps to the starting line at the Hilton Head Island Marathon in South Carolina on Saturday, Feb. 13, it won't be the first time that he will be heading off on a 26.2-mile trek. It will be the first time, however, that he will be running to raise money for the Dystonia Medical Research Foundation (DMRF).

Diagnosed with the neurological movement disorder in 2006, Landis, now in his fourth year with the Warriors, said he will have a special motivation to finish the race, as he tries to raise awareness and money in the fight against dystonia, a painful non-life-threatening disease he has lived with for more than a decade.

By the spring of 2005, Landis was busy building the Bucknell University football team into a Patriot League contender, leading the team to a 7-4 season in 2004 and its second consecutive winning season in league play. Then the pain started.

With a young team, the Bison suffered through their worst year in 14 seasons in 2005, winning just one game. Through it all, Landis led the team with a literal pain in the neck.

"I had a really stiff neck when it first started and some tremor in my head and my left hand," Landis said. "I didn't know what it was. I could draw some conclusions based on my father, who has essential tremor, which is in the same neurological disorder family, but what I couldn't figure out was why the neck was causing so much pain."

Landis wasn't used to pain like this. A two-sport star at Randolph-Macon College that was both a first-team all-conference quarterback and pitcher, he would occasionally pitch both ends of a doubleheader. After graduating, he spent time at Randolph-Macon as a coach before becoming the head football and baseball coach and athletic director at Morrisville (Pa.) High School. He left for an assistant job at Davidson in 1991 and two years later was promoted to head coach, where he turned around the Division I football program. He did the same thing at St. Mary's College of California before moving back to his home state of Pennsylvania in 2003 to guide Bucknell and quickly guided the team to two .500 or better seasons in his first two years.

"I went to two different neurologists that both said they thought I had essential tremor," Landis said, "but I kept coming back to the spasms in the back of my neck. Finally, I went to the Penn State Hershey campus in 2006 and that's where I was diagnosed."

Landis was diagnosed with cervical dystonia, a disease characterized by extreme, involuntary muscles spasms in the neck (along the cervical spine). Cervical dystonia causes twisting movements and fixed positions of the head, and is typically painful. The mainstay of treatment is regular injections of medical botulinum neurotoxin ("Botox") into the neck muscles.

"It took some time to get the right balance for the treatment," Landis said. "They hook you up to an EKG machine around the neck and injected in the areas where they can hear the spasms happening. The neurons in my brain aren't firing correctly, which causes the spasms. The first time they do the injections, it's kind of a situation where they just try to see if it works, so it took a few times before it really took effect."

In 2006, the Bison rebounded from a one-win season with a six-win campaign and Landis coached at Bucknell for three more years. He did it all while battling the effects of the dystonia, heading to Geisinger Medical Center just about once every 100 days for more injections.

By the end of 2009, Landis was ready for a change, and after spending a year each at San Jose State as the offensive coordinator and at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute as head coach, the disorder he had been living with for six years was beginning to take its toll. Once an outgoing personality, the embarrassment from the tremors made him more insular and he was beginning to look at opportunities outside athletics.

He took a year off from coaching in 2012 for the first time in his career. During that year, he began running and a lot of weight that he had gained since getting the disorder began to melt off.

"I tried to exercise, but with coaching, it was always hit or miss because I was so busy," Landis said. "It wasn't until I took the year off from coaching that I really got into running. That's when it really just took off for me. It was good to get healthy again and I began to gravitate towards it."

Running, he said, helped ease the symptoms of the spasms. After all, what better activity could there be to tire overactive muscles?

"Running is the one exercise I can do where it doesn't have a painful effect on my neck and shoulders," Landis said. "Swimming and biking are difficult because you have to raise your head up. For me, running became very therapeutic. Mentally, it was my form of meditation in a lot of ways. When I run, I am able to think about a lot of things that are important and I can also let a lot of things go and be in the moment. It really helped my overall outlook."

A lifelong competitor, it wasn't long before he began to get new goals in his mind and within a year of beginning his training, he ran in his first marathon, the Ocean Drive Marathon in 2013.

"Every once in a while, I want to challenge myself, so I will do a race," Landis said.

The marathon helped get Landis' competitive juices flowing again and during the summer of 2013, he reached out to Lycoming football coach Mike Clark to see if he could help with the program. Clark jumped at the chance and Landis coached tight ends and assisted with special teams while helping the Warriors earn a share of the school's 15th Middle Atlantic Conference title. At the end of the year, Clark hired Landis as a full-time coach, working with quarterbacks, the passing game and special teams. While Clark handles play-calling on Saturdays, Landis and offensive line assistant Pat Taylor '09 factor heavily into the offensive gameplan.

After the 2015 season, Landis decided it was time for another challenge in running, so he began to seek out a marathon.

"For a couple years, I had been thinking about doing another marathon, but I wanted to do it for a cause," Landis said. "I wanted to raise funds or awareness for a worthy cause. In discussion with my wife, we talked about doing it for dystonia because it is something I live with every day. In talking to the DMRF, they liked the idea and gave me my choice of races, so I got online and the Hilton Head Island Marathon was one that was suggested to me. I wanted to run one at this time of the year to set a goal. This is a busy time for recruiting in football. This was a good way to make sure I continued to move toward a goal in running while also working on recruiting. It helps to not get stale or complacent."

Now as he enters his 26th year as a collegiate football coach, Landis, once the marathon pitcher who threw both ends of a doubleheader, will embark on a different kind of marathon. And unlike the second game of those doubleheaders, he is bound and determined to finish what he started.

As for dystonia, Landis will continue to live and function with the neurological disorder, one day at a time, one step at a time.

To donate the Dystonia Medical Research Foundation in Landis' honor, please visit:

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